How Carrie Happened by Bev Vincent
By 1973, Stephen King had been writing for twenty years and had been publishing short stories for over a decade. He had already embarked on his long road to the Dark Tower. However, he had yet to crack into print with a novel, even though he had written over half a dozen.
King had established contact with an editor at Doubleday named Bill Thompson who saw promise in his writing. Getting It On (aka Rage) and The Long Walk had piqued Thompson’s interest, but even after extensive rewrites the editor couldn’t justify acquiring either, and he showed little interest in The Running Man.
King was living with his wife, Tabitha, and two kids in a doublewide trailer in Hermon, Maine, just outside Bangor. He had recently given up his $1.60 an hour job at a commercial laundry (immortalized in “The Mangler”) for a $6400 a year position teaching high school at the Hampden Academy, a job that left him with little spare time or energy. Tabitha was working at Dunkin’ Donuts and he moonlighted at the New Franklin Laundry during summer vacation. If not for his wife’s support and encouragement, he might have given up on writing.
Carrie started its life as an abandoned short story. The tale of a bullied teenage girl with telekinetic powers was a response to a college friend’s challenge to write from a female perspective. A visit to the forbidden world of the girl’s locker room while working as a janitor supplied the germ for the opening scene. Another influence was an article from Life magazine about the relationship between telekinetic activity and adolescent girls. He thought he had the basis for a story that would yield a quick paycheck from one of the men’s magazines, maybe even Playboy, which paid much better.
He didn’t start writing it immediately, but the idea percolated until he was ready to take a stab at it one evening. However, after the first five pages, he was in trouble. He didn’t much like his protagonist, he didn’t know enough about the situation to feel confident about what he was writing, and the story looked like it was going to run longer than anything Cavalier would publish. Could he afford to spend weeks or months on something he couldn’t sell? Given his bad track record with novels, he decided to abandon the project.
Tabitha found the discarded pages in the trash and encouraged him to keep going. She told him that it showed promise. She would help him with the things he wasn’t familiar with and provided constant support during the writing process. She was the one, for example, who suggested that Carrie use the band’s gear to launch the cataclysm during the prom. Since he had no better ideas to work on, he decided to see the story through to the end. During at least part of the writing process, the Kings (and their two-year-old daughter and newborn son) were living with Graham Adams, a UMO teacher with whom King had co-taught a course when he was in university.
For inspiration, he recalled his school years, which weren’t that far in the past: he was only 26. To create Carrie White, he drew upon two outcast former classmates, both of whom died before he started writing the novel. One had an ultra-religious mother and the other wore the same clothes most of the time.
He plodded through the story, often feeling depressed about its prospects. He had little faith in the finished manuscript, which ended up in the dreaded novella territory. Still lacking any other ideas to work on, he revised the book, padding it out with fictitious news items, until it was—just barely—a novel. As with Blaze, he didn’t bother sending the book to Doubleday. However, he decided to submit Carrie after Thompson inquired if he was working on anything new. The timing was perfect. Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist had renewed enthusiasm for horror novels.
King worked with Thompson on revisions, mostly to do with the book’s final 50 pages, which King later said resembled a best-forgotten horror movie called The Brain from Planet Arous. Thompson recalls, “In the first draft, when the prom explodes, Carrie turns into a giant figure. Literally. She develops horns. Lightning comes from her finger tips and she blasts an airplane out of the sky. I felt strongly that he needed to get rid of that ending and turn it into something just as lethal but not a comic book. This is a girl who has had a cruel and humiliating trick played on her. She’s had bottled up rage inside of her since she was probably 6 years old, and now she’s going to explode. But it’s not going to be by horns and lightning from her finger tips. She’s going to do things like knocking over the electric current onto a pile of rags. She’s going to raise hell and she’s going to not care about what happens. She’s not really out to kill anyone. She’s just releasing this pent-up animosity, frustration, shame, and all those other feelings that have been thrusted upon her by the people she’s encountered.”
King also changed the setting from a suburb outside Boston to Maine because he thought the people “up here” would like it.
Thompson felt that he was in tune with King’s concept of the book and that together they understood what Carrie was supposed to do “for and to the reader.” After receiving an encouraging letter from Thompson, King borrowed $75 from his wife’s grandmother so he could take the overnight bus to Manhattan, where he met his editor for the first time.
A month later, when Doubleday decided to purchase the novel, Thompson had to let him know via telegram, because the Kings had removed their telephone to save money. The missive said: “Carrie officially a Doubleday book. $2500 against royalties. Call for glorious details. Congratulations. The future lies ahead.” The advance was supposed to be $1500, but Thompson bumped the amount and snuck it past the accountants and contract writers. It was enough to buy a Ford Pinto (which would feature in a later novel) to replace their car, which had blown its transmission.
The first printing of Carrie was somewhere between 5000 and 30,000 copies (sources vary on this figure—King says it sold 13,000 copies in hardcover and earned out its advance). The advance wasn’t enough for King to give up his teaching job, nor was his share of the sale of the movie rights. He hoped that the paperback rights, if they sold, would garner as much as $60,000, enough to keep the household running for three or four years if they were frugal. On Mother’s Day, he received a call from Thompson (they had moved to an apartment in town and had a telephone again) telling him that his share of the paperback rights from Signet would be $200,000, nearly $2 million in today’s dollars. King had to ask his editor to repeat the figure several times to make sure he understood.
To celebrate, he went out to get his wife an “extravagant” Mother’s Day present, but most of the stores in Bangor were closed that Sunday. He bought her a $29 hair dryer at the drugstore and worried all the way home that he would be killed by a car while crossing the street.
In a conversation with John Grisham, King revealed that Doubleday had another book coming out that year that they put all their ad money behind, Jaws, so Carrie didn’t get much support. It didn’t look like it was going to sell. Then movie producer Paul Monash purchased the film rights for $7-8000 and hired Brian De Palma to direct the film, which was a huge success, turning the paperback into a bestseller.
The rest, as they say, is history.
 Although a couple of these remain unpublished, most of these early works subsequently appeared under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman, including Blaze, which wouldn’t be published for nearly 35 years.
Next, you can read Ray Garton’s personal essay about Carrie or Richard’s essay about re-reading the book or Richard’s follow-up post about George Chizmar. The complete list of the books to be read can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.